The Somnambulist is the debut novel of author Essie Fox, which tells the story of 17 year-old Phoebe in her search of identity within her family.
Phoebe is brought up in late 19th Century London in an unconventional family unit consisting of her very pious mother Maud and her Aunt Cissy. It is her Aunt Cissy that Phoebe is particularly close to, and enjoys accompanying her to the theatre (where Cissy performs) which her mother is against.
When Cissy dies, Phoebe’s world is shattered, and with little income to support the household, Maud decides to send Phoebe to Herefordshire to be the companion of Mrs Samuels, the wife of her greatest enemy.
Now living in Herefordshire, Phoebe becomes very attached to Mrs Samuels, but finds herself strangely attracted to both Nathaniel Samuels and his son Joseph. Despite her fondness of the house and the company she is in however, Phoebe is haunted by the memory of the Samuels’ daughter Esther, in which she dissevers a striking resemblance to herself.
Throughout this novel there are scenes of dark sexual tension, graphic depictions of sex and hints of incest (due to Fox’s lingering suggestion that Nathaniel may in fact be Phoebe’s father). Altogether this leads for a very unbalanced novel. It is evident that Fox wishes us to notice the startling change between city and country which Phoebe must adapt to, but it is hard for the reader to decipher the tone of this novel when the changes are so very sudden. At one point, for example, Phoebe has left the country (where she is now suffering the cruelty of Joseph and missing the presence of Nathaniel) to return to London, but when she does she is promptly rejected by her mother and long-lost father. In this particular scene Fox has attempted to show how upset our protagonist is, but when she seeks solace in the only place she can think of- the house of her late Aunt’s best friend- her devastation is overshadowed by the theatrical presence of the house, and the cheery attitude of her friend.
Another point which I wish to make is how hard it is to connect with the protagonist. This may be a personal qualm, but when I am reading a novel I like to feel like I am in the main character’s shoes (as it were), in order to understand their thought process and the emotions they are likely to feel. This is very hard to do with Phoebe. When we are introduced to her character, she appears to be a teenager who follows her mother rules- such as only dressing in black- but has a secret love for the theatre. It is not prevalent that she resents her mother (as the novel later suggests), but we do see that she is very close to her Aunt. All in all her character is portrayed as a relatively innocent 17 year-old girl of the 19th Century. Therefore, when the reader discovers her sexual desires for Nathaniel and his son, it seems misplaced. In a later sex scene Phoebe’s physical condition after the act is described very graphically (down to the fluid running down her leg), and this vision of a wanton girl does not appear to fit the image of the girl who is shown to believe in mortal sin.
The ending for me was also disappointing. There are lots of loose ends never fully tied up, and Fox’s use of letters sent back and forth between the protagonist and another character makes the author seem inexperienced at ending her novel.
To be frank, I did not enjoy Fox’s debut at all. I was instantly drawn to the book due to its fantastical cover, and the blurb on the back did not seem to accurately represent what the novel was about at all. We are never sure where Phoebe’s true love and loyalty lies- to the theatre? To her Aunt? To Nathaniel? To Mrs Samuels? As aforementioned, I also feel that the way her personality is portrayed was confusing, and I could only identify with one minor character in the novel. At times, due to the age of the protagonist and the [plain] writing, I felt I was reading a ‘teen’ fiction. These feelings only diminished when the graphic sexual scenes and Phoebe’s desires are described.
In my opinion, not a promising start for Fox.